A Poignant Reminder to Talk About Mental Health

By Kimberley Lee

The death of Peter Robbins resonated with me. He was tapped to be the first voice of Charlie Brown as a child actor in the early 1960s when Charles Schultz began to adapt his popular “Peanuts” cartoon strip for TV and movies.

I grew up with these shows, and so did my children, but it was not just nostalgia that made me take notice of Robbins’s death. His family announced on Jan. 25 that the 65-year-old Robbins had died the week before by suicide. He had long struggled with both mental-health and substance-use disorders.

MHA, the Mental Health Assoc., is the organization I work for, whose behavioral-health outreach clinic and residential programs have long offered support and treatment to individuals with such dual diagnoses. It was especially disheartening to read how the life of Robbins, associated through the 1970s with a character that brought much entertainment to the screen, ended.

The cartoon strip itself was sometimes subtitled “Good ol’ Charlie Brown,” and the world Schultz created was a self-contained one about childhood. Its ups, downs, and misplaced crushes were depicted by characters who were very animated, even in print. No adults are featured, but the characters struggle with plenty of personal issues that often follow into adulthood. Some, like Lucy, can be bossy; some are a bit vain, like curly-haired Freida; and some are self-absorbed, like Schroeder on his piano. Everyone is just trying to fit in or fit into who they are, including Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s beagle, who often retreats into his own world on top of his doghouse or into his imagination, where he fights the Red Baron as the Flying Ace. There is also Pig-Pen, who tells Sally, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, he doesn’t appreciate that name he has been tagged with because of his appearance, but neither does he like the rain to wash away that appearance from a day of playing in the dirt.

They are a complicated bunch, defying stereotypes in their own ways of being and thinking and friendships across neighborhoods and interests.

Schultz, who died in 2000, wondered if his characters would resonate through time, and they do, as Charlie Brown embodies a little bit of all of us emotionally as he navigates this world of personalities. And, of course, should he need advice, there is Lucy, who sets up a Psychiatric Help booth, where she gives her version of professional help for five cents. It is a world in which the timeless troubles and alienations of childhood are on display, but also one in which the characters cope and carry on with their pursuits and come together.

I grew up with all the animated specials, including A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and, again, so did my children. Each time these classic movies aired, those 30 minutes provided an opportunity for us to be together as a family, to make a connection, to embrace each other emotionally.

In our house, emotional connectedness happens in other ways as well. For example, once a week, my husband and I pull our girls together (now that they are in college, this is done remotely), we all unplug, and we just simply and sincerely ask them, “how are you?” And not just physically, but emotionally. Their answers have been honest and transparent and emotional at times.

It gave them, at an early age, a green light to talk openly about how they feel from a mental-health perspective, and there was no stigma, no shame, no hesitancy in doing this.

We all know that challenges to mental health start young, and the sooner we address them, the better the outcome.

Kimberley Lee is vice president of Resource Development & Branding for the Mental Health Assoc.

New School Nutrition Standards Are a Good Start

By Donald Lloyd Jones, M.D.

The American Heart Assoc. appreciates the Biden administration’s efforts to help schools address the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has placed an unprecedented strain on school meal programs, which are a key tool in the fight against food insecurity and help ensure that children across the nation are eating healthy, nutritious food.

The new rule [from the U.S. Department of Agriculture updating nutrition standards for school years 2022-23 and 2023-24 for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program] will help bring stability to schools as they continue to operate in an uncertain environment and put healthier foods back on the menu. By clarifying the standards for sodium, whole grains, and milk for the next two school years, this rule brings the meal standards closer to the strong, evidence-based standards that were adopted in 2012; however, closer will not ultimately be enough. These standards must be temporary and serve as a bridge to stronger nutrition standards based on the latest nutrition science.

We support USDA’s plan to issue a new science-based proposal this fall that would align the school meal nutrition standards with the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Those new standards, which would take effect for school year 2024-25, should require schools to offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and more whole grains, which are key components of a healthy diet. The new standards must also limit the amount of saturated fat and sodium, including moving forward with the sodium targets contained in the 2012 rule and developing a fourth sodium target that further lowers sodium consumption in younger children. 

We also continue to urge USDA to limit the amount of added sugars. Added sugars are a significant source of excess calories in children’s diets and provide no nutritional value, yet there is currently no limit on the amount of added sugars school meals can contain. That is why we recently joined the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Public Health Assoc. in a citizen petition asking USDA to adopt an added sugars standard. The creation of an added sugars standard would have a tremendous impact on children’s health.

We look forward to working with USDA as it continues to update the school meals standards to better reflect current dietary guidelines and put healthier meals back on the table. We urge the Biden administration and Congress to continue prioritizing children’s health by protecting and strengthening school meal nutrition standards. These will be important steps in promoting greater lifelong health for all children.

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones is president of the American Heart Assoc.